Trial date set for driver accused in January 2012 BR cyclist’s death

Advocate staff file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- In this January 2012 photo, friends placed flowers at a Show caption
Advocate staff file photo by PATRICK DENNIS -- In this January 2012 photo, friends placed flowers at a "ghost bike" memorial where Baton Rouge cyclist Nathan Crowson was killed. The ghost bike memorial is observed nationwide at sites where cyclists are killed in accidents.

Nathan Crowson’s family got what it was hoping for Tuesday in a Baton Rouge courtroom — a trial date for the alleged drunken driver accused in the January 2012 death of the avid bicyclist on Perkins Road.

State District Judge Mike Erwin ruled that Baton Rouge police had probable cause to arrest Joseph Branch on charges of vehicular homicide, first-degree vehicular negligent injuring and second-offense DWI.

Branch, 29, of Baton Rouge, previously pleaded not guilty to those charges.

On Tuesday, Erwin set a Feb. 10 trial date for Branch.

“That’s what we were hoping for today,” Crowson’s oldest brother, Matthew, said outside the 19th Judicial District Courthouse.

Matthew Crowson described the Jan. 21, 2012, death of his 30-year-old brother as “the worst thing ever.”

Speaking through tears, he said, “He was my little brother and he meant the world to me.”

After sitting in court for more than four hours listening to Branch’s attorneys and a prosecutor argue over the state’s DWI procedures, Nathan Crowson’s little brother, Loc, said he believes Branch’s defense “seemed a little desperate.”

He added, “It seems like a lot of time has been wasted the last year and a half.”

The purpose of Tuesday’s hearing was to determine whether police had probable cause to arrest Branch the night of the accident, and to decide whether results of his breath test should be suppressed because the defense has not received all the documentation it requested from the state.

In the end, the motion to suppress was deemed moot.

Police Cpl. Mickey Duncan, a member of the department’s DWI Task Force, testified Branch’s blood-alcohol content was 0.307 percent the night of the crash that killed Nathan Crowson and severely injured Crowson’s friend and fellow cyclist Daniel Morris as they were riding on Perkins Road near Quail Run Drive.

Branch’s attorneys are contesting what they call an “extremely high” blood-alcohol reading.

DeVan Pardue, one of those attorneys, said after court that a video at the scene does not depict a “slurring, falling down” person.

“What we’re looking for is verification that everything was done accurately,” he said.

Pardue also told reporters that riding a bicycle on a four-lane highway at night in dark clothing is “dangerous.”

A blood-alcohol level of 0.08 percent is considered presumptive evidence of drunken driving in Louisiana for those 21 and over.

Duncan testified Branch admitted to him that he had been drinking at The Bulldog on Perkins Road just a few miles from the scene of the accident. Duncan said Branch refused a horizontal gaze test and failed a walk-and-turn test.

Pardue suggested during the hearing that Branch could not perform the horizontal gaze test — in which a person is asked to follow a pen’s motion from side to side — because he was upset about the crash and crying.

Pardue also noted that Duncan told Branch the crash was not his fault because the cyclists were riding at night, but Duncan testified he was only trying to calm Branch down so he could conduct a field sobriety test.

Sgt. Cory Reech, who heads the DWI Task Force, said he administered Branch’s breath test in a mobile unit. Reech said he has personally performed more than 500 such tests and has assisted in thousands of those tests.

Prosecutor Julie Cullen told Erwin that Branch has a previous DWI charge and conviction.

Branch was booked for his first DWI on Aug. 3, 2006. His blood-alcohol content then was 0.241 percent, City Court records indicate. He was originally given a 60-day suspended jail term for his first DWI, but that term was reinstated three days after the crash that killed Crowson and injured Morris, the records show.

Branch was then allowed to post bond under the condition that he go directly from jail to an inpatient treatment facility. He has since completed that treatment.

Morris sued Branch, The Bulldog and their insurance companies in January.